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As a tutor, it makes my heart glad that I’m so ‘in demand’ for one-to-one tuition. Aside from confirming that I like my job and that I'm good at it (ahem, very good at it - my mother always said that if I don't blow my own trumpet, no one else will) I'm in a fortunate position where the job I love also keeps a roof over my head and allows me the freedom to do what I feel is best for the students under my tutelage. All this is very good because, despite all the wondrous advances in technology, we do still live in a society that holds one-to-one, face-to-face tuition as the very pinnacle of tutoring services, the ‘gold standard’ of extra-curricular support.

But it saddens me that the true benefits of online group tuition are being continually overlooked when, for so many children, this is the arena that would allow their true selves to flourish. While some children thrive with all that concentrated 'in-person' attention, sometimes more social learners do better when bouncing ideas off peers, scaffolding each others' learning with encouraging words and helpful hints or, quite simply, being able to think in the comfortable environment that is home. For some, the intensity of the one-to-one session just isn't going to fit the bill when instead, in a similar way to online gaming, the paradox of the social group from a lone laptop just might.

Do I even need to ask why parents tend to shun online group tuition? It's likely down to remembering those awful lockdown days of just a few years ago when everyone was thrown in at the deep end and expected to sink or swim. With the best will in the world, so many teachers (true troopers – I know, I was one!) had to grapple with inadequate software, poor internet connections and the impossible situation of trying to replicate classroom conditions when the whole world didn’t know how things were going to be from one week to the next. It’s little wonder that our children, floundering with life even more, often found it difficult to cope. Then throw in a screenful of students in various states of sleeplessness and undress, include any number of family disagreements going on in the background and (in one particular case) a dog having a wee up the side of the sofa and, well, it's not going to leave anyone with fond memories of online learning.

This is hardly selling online group tuition, is it?

Well, fast forward just 3 years and the whole game has changed.

Technology has improved. Techniques have improved. Interactivity exists in a way it never did before. We know enough now to get the best out of our online students, keeping the groups small to allow focused work, muting microphones at the correct points and unmuting when free discussion is required. We can share documents, games, quizzes, and write on each others' screens, interacting with each other as though there truly were other people in the room with us (and not just the ones trying to frantically clean up dog wee). Research has been carried out which shows that small groups are not just effective but are often BETTER for more sociable children, helping them to achieve phenomenal progress in a relatively short space of time - up to an additional 4 months over the course of a year (Education Endowment Foundation, 2021; Pearson/National Tutoring Programme, 2021). So with shared accountability, moral support and perhaps a small degree of healthy competitiveness (where no-one is ever the loser), this is a sure-fire recipe for success. And children who join these groups tend to want to be there, which makes the biggest difference of all.

This is exactly what I’ve seen so far in my own online groups – small and extremely tight-knit, supportive and engaged, there’s not one single child who hasn’t benefitted* enormously from being part of that group. And the best bit? Obviously, it has to be the progress they make from an educational point of view… but perhaps it’s also the feeling of safety each child has, the freedom to make mistakes but with the support of their peers.

Or is it the fun we have?

It doesn't matter when I'm teaching: it's a true team and a teacher’s dream. Here's to online groups and long may they continue.

Lynn Barnes-Cooper (with not a Chatbot in sight), July 2023

*yes, you can spell it either benefited or benefitted, for the pedant (like me)


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